When Manhattan begins, Woody Allen's Isaac starts to dictate a book. As gorgeous, black and white shots of New York swim across the screen, he says:
Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion... Er, no, make that: He... He romanticized it all out of proportion... Yes. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.
At its most basic level, this intro is quintessential Allen -- a package of wildly varying and sometimes astute thoughts that are sucked into a vortex of manic, second-guessing self-involvement. Isaac cannot even make it through the first few sentences of his book without re-thinking and re-framing the start over and over again. This is the Allen we're all familiar with, a character needing little explanation because we already know it so well.

But there's also the level of sentimentality and cinematic forgiveness revealed in this statement. Manhattan is a love story about the Big Apple, where -- at times -- characters are secondary to their environment, but it's also a prime metaphor for how we see the romance between Isaac and young Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). These are subjects and scenarios wiped clean of their reality, whose presentation makes the dangerous or questionable something gorgeous or charming.
Just like Manhattan isn't the perfect city that Isaac describes -- he knows full well that he's "romanticized it all out of proportion" -- his relationship isn't as idyllic as the film suggests. Here we have a man decades older than his girlfriend, a young seventeen-year-old girl mature for her age, but still youthful and idealistic in a way that reveals her immaturity. There are mentions of the massive age difference, but no real judgments. Their relationship is situated as two people in two very different worlds, not as the old man (older than her father) who waits outside the high school for his young girl, eager for a little canoodling.

Isaac keeps swearing he's too old for Tracy, but the argument is only used as a way to distance himself. It's not a decision based on morals. Rather than plucking the audience's nerves as the forty-something filmmaker passionately kisses the 17 or 16-year-old (depending on shooting schedule), their interludes are framed as sweet. This may be, in part, because 17 is so very close to 18, and times were different back then. It might be Allen's refusal to show Tracy's world beyond how it fits into his own. (There's no meeting the parents, spending time with her friends or family, or commentary on how those in her life view her relationship.)

Of course, it's partially because the relationship is unsurprising. This is part of Allen's usual cinematic M.O. He's the truly awkward man always getting the extremely young and beautiful women. His cinematic and romantic vision has always focused on those younger than himself, whether it's a rough decade with the likes of Mia Farrow or Diane Keaton, or a much deeper chasm like the one between Allen and Hemingway. (The actress didn't turn 18 until almost seven months after the film was released.)

But I think Manhattan reveals even more about the audience than it does the filmmaker's proclivities. The film is easy to like; it's easy to appreciate for its artistry. The black and white scenes reveal a pristine, timeless, and classy New York, and the Gershwin musical numbers evoke a classic, old-school feeling of romance. Allen knows exactly how to bring our romantic feelings bubbling to the surface, and they soon rule how we interpret the story.

We're reminded of epic couples, and we're pulled into that drama. The scenario is no longer about reality, or about an older man and a young girl, but rather, a semi-star-crossed couple and our own sentimental weaknesses. At one point, Isaac even mentions the beauty in Flaubert's Sentimental Education, which is just as apt for how Allen frames the film, as it is for the script's similarities to Flaubert's free-wheeling and messy world of romance and directon-less life.

I wonder: Did Allen, in some way, intend to make his audience question their widespread sentimentality and how easily we will buy into romance and refuse to look at the flaws of his on-screen couple? He emphasized the problems of idolizing something out of proportion, he refers to Sentimental Education, we even learn of his "fits of rage, Jewish, liberal paranoia, male chauvinism [and] self-righteous misanthropy." Are we meant to sympathize, or is Woody subtly suggesting that we shouldn't be buying into this romance, pairing the chauvinist with the young, innocent girl?

  • What, do you think, Allen is trying to say about this romance? Is he illuminating the audience's easy ability to be overly sentimental?
  • How do you see the relationship between Isaac and Tracy?
  • In his review, Ebert said: "The relationships aren't really the point of the movie: It's more about what people say during relationships -- or, to put it more bluntly, it's about how people lie by technically telling the truth" Discuss.
  • Does reality play a factor in viewing experiences like this? (For example, how Hemingway wasn't a 20-something playing younger, but an actress who was either younger or the same age?)
  • This follows Annie Hall, which also links Allen romantically to Diane Keaton. Which is the better film, and why?
Let's go dramatic next week, so I can pop my new Blu-ray in...

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Last Week's Film:Gods and Monsters